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The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 72

Evening Star, Dunedin

Evening Star, Dunedin.

The Newspaper Libel Limitation Bill, which the Minister of Lands is introducing, is far more drastic in its provisions than we had ever anticipated from that source, though well aware of the honourable gentleman's deep-rooted aversion to a section of the press. By this precious Bill a newspaper article is defined as meaning "any printed matter (other than letters, commercial reports, and commercial advertisements) appearing in any newspaper and comprising more than one hundred and fifty words." The main operative clause states:—"In so far as concerns the proprietor, editor, printer, or publisher of a newspaper, any article or letter published therein is privileged if such article or letter be published without malice, and discloses in print at its foot the true and full name and address of its writer. But nothing contained in this section shall be construed to in any way protect such writer, even though he be such proprietor, editor, printer, or publisher." To make the measure as harassing as possible it is expressly stipulated that if in any newspaper there be published any article or letter which does not disclose in print at its foot the true and full name and address of its writer, the proprietor, editor, printer, and publisher are severally liable to a penalty of not less than £5 nor more than £50, to be recovered summarily before the Stipendiary Magistrate. Then it is further stipulated that no penalty inflicted under the Act shall in any way be an answer or bar (whether by way of mitigation or otherwise) to any civil or criminal proceedings for libel. In any such proceedings the absence of the true and full name and address of the writer of the alleged libellous matter is to be evidence of express malice. This is press censorship with a vengeance. It is, however, most unlikely that the House, even constituted as it is, will for a moment tolerate such legislation, though it happens to be promoted by a Minister who has before now threatened members with dire consequences if they hesitate to pass a measure on which he has set his heart. But how a Cabinet, of which the Minister of Education, himself a distinguished member of the profession which this Bill will unquestionably greatly harass, could consent to the introduction of a measure (suitable, perhaps, to Russia) as a Government Bill is one of those tilings which "no fellah can understand." It is notorious that the Minister of Lands writhes under the criticism to which he is subjected in the newspapers from one end of the colony to the other, so he proposes to "scotch these vipers" by withdrawing from the writers of articles and letters the shield of anonymity. The Bill, it appears, makes it compulsory that all articles and letters should be signed by leader-writers and contributors in their proper names, the object being, no doubt, to enable the Government to crush out or dispose of in some more pleasant way those who wield powerful pens against their policy and upon the evils of their administration. The anonymity of the press is universally regarded throughout the Empire and the States of the Great Republic as the greatest safeguard against administrative tyranny, official corruption, and public and private wrongs. It is thus that the people are warned in time as to the mischief in contemplation, and the first steps are taken to redress grievances by a full exposition of the circumstances. In many instances, were silence to be preserved until demonstrative proof were forthcoming, the mischief would be done before the exposure was made. Leaving aside the consideration of articles, in regard to which an enactment requiring the signature of the writer would page 38 be easily evaded, as it is in France—a special employe being engaged in the leading offices to sign such as may be dangerous and take the consequences—the public interests would, it is at once manifest, suffer materially by the practical suppression of newspaper correspondence. The most able and intelligent citizens are accustomed to ventilate their opinions on matters of general or local interest by this means, and it affects the arguments in no degree that the identity of the writer is covered by a nom de plume. Those best informed in regard to a subject are, as a rule, debarred from personal intervention, and information often of extreme value could most certainly be withheld if the writer could not give it except under his own name. The reasons for this may be well understood, particularly in communities comparatively small, and where business, social, and domestic interests are closely interwoven. We repeat again that the liberty of the press and, as a necessary consequence, the liberty of the subject are threatened in this Bill, which embodies entirely retrogressive and illiberal principles. Mr. McKenzie possibly has read Sheridan's eloquent speech in the House of Commons on the liberty of the press, delivered in 1810; at any rate, he evidently realises the force of the peroration:—"Give me but the liberty of the press, and I will give to the Minister a venal House of Peers. I will give him a corrupt and servile House of Commons. I will give him the full swing of the patronage of office. I will give him the whole post of Ministerial influence. I will give him all the power that place can confer upon him to purchase up submission and overawe resistance; and yet, armed with the liberty of the press, I will go forth to meet him undismayed. I will attack the mighty fabric he has raised with a mightier engine. I will shake down from its height corruption, and bury it beneath the ruins it was meant to shelter."

Gladly would I keep King Charles' head—in other words, the Hon. John McKenzie—out of "By the Way" this week. I am well aware that the subject is neither ornamental nor specially edifying; but what can I do? I am as helpless in the matter as poor Mr. Dick. To pass over the Newspaper Libel Limitation Bill would be to forego my function as an abstract and brief chronicler of the time, and how can I write about the Bill without mentioning the Bill's author? So Mr. McKenzie's peculiar personality must e'en dominate this column once again, and if my readers are inclined to complain I can only say that I sympathise with them from my heart. The day will come—sooner, perhaps, than some good "Liberals" imagine—when the Honourable John, politically speaking, will be a power of the past: let us look forward to that day yearningly and prayerfully, meanwhile bearing our burden with manful fortitude. Quos Deus vult perdere, prius dementat, and a glance at the new Libel Bill has filled me with confident hope that the hour of Mr. McKenzie's political perdition cannot be far off. The new Liberalism has certainly surpassed itself in this latest little Bill. Even Mr. Reeves' Masters and Apprentices Bill (in its original form) was an ordinary piece of work in comparison with Mr. McKenzie's gagging proposals—proposals at which the shades of Lords Castlereagh and Eldon, and all the good old Tories of the past, must be absolutely charmed. The Liberal Minister of to-day does not propose to go quite so far as Sir Vicary Gibbs (an Attorney-General of the early part of the century), who, according to Lord Campbell, "placed widows and old maids on the floor of the Court of King's Bench to receive sentence for political libels published in newspapers which they had never read, because they received annuities secured on the properties of these newspapers;" but none the less he is the true spiritual descendant of those suppressive Ministers who did homage to King George the Third.

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Mr. McKenzie, as would-be gagger of the press, is the latest of a long line. "The regulations of the Star Chamber for this purpose," says J. R. Green, in his short history, "are memorable as the first step in the long struggle of government after government to check the liberty of printing. The irregular censorship which had long existed was now (1585) finally organised. Printing was restricted to London and the two Universities, the number of printers reduced, and all candidates for license to print were placed under the supervision of the Company of Stationers. Every publication, too, great or small, had to receive the approbation of the Primate or the Bishop of London." But let us do these bygone tyrants justice: they did not carry out their oppression in the name of Liberalism. This it is—the profession of Liberalism, the boast of democratic principles—that gives its infinite humour to the new tyranny; the idea has all the piquant flavour of ultra-audacious paradox. But let me quote Green again; he is now at the year 1763:—"In spite of the removal of the censorship after the Revolution, the press had been slow to attain any political influence. . . . It was, in fact, not till the accession of George III. that the impulse which Pitt had given to the national spirit, and the rise of a keener interest in politics, raised the press into a political power. The nation found in it a court of appeal from the Houses of Parliament. . . . In Number 45 of the 'North Briton' Wilkes had censured the Speech from the Throne at the opening of Parliament, and a 'general warrant' by the Secretary of State was issued. . . . But the assumption of an arbitrary judicial power by both Houses, and the system of terror which Grenville put in force against the press by issuing two hundred injunctions against different journals, roused a storm of indignation throughout the country. Every street resounded with cries of 'Wilkes and Liberty.' It was soon clear that opinion had been embittered rather than silenced by the blow at Wilkes, and six years later the failure of the prosecution directed against an anonymous journalist named 'Junius' for his Letter to the King established the right of the press to criticise the conduct, not of Ministers or Parliament only, but of the Sovereign himself." I must apologise for making such a long extract, but my readers will hardly regard it as malapropos. It was Lord Grenville who put Wilkes in gaol and endeavoured to suppress "Junius," and one's first thought is what a capital Grenville Mr. John McKenzie would have made if a mysterious Providence had not seen fit to reserve him for these times. Can it be that he is a reincarnation of King George's Minister?

But we must not treat Mr. McKenzie's escapade too seriously. To vary the words of Marcellus,

We do it wrong, being so ridiculous,
To offer it the show of gravity.

It will be interesting to see what the Ministerialist press has to say about the Bill, but meanwhile let us forget that the Minister's proposals have not the remotest chance of becoming law: let us imagine, rather, that they are certain to find their way to the Statute Book. Let us go with Alice into Wonderland for a few minutes. And impute it not to an undue egotism if I bethink myself of the future of "By the Way." When I remember all the good advice and kindly attention which I have unstintedly bestowed on the Minister of Lands, I am precluded from supposing that he would wish to abolish this column: it would be an instance of black ingratitude at which the angels would weep. Still, by a careless oversight, he has omitted to make a special exception in my favour, consequently (unless that exception is inserted in Committee) I shall be obliged to adopt one out of three alternatives:—1. I might retire into private life, and leave the world (Mr. McKenzie included) to its sins. I page 40 might fold my tent and silently steal away, leaving behind me the shadow of a name—a mysterious "Nemo," coming men knew not whence, gone they know not whither. In short, "By the Way" might cease to appear. Methinks I hear a deep-voiced shout of "Never" from the collective throat of Dunedin. I thank my honourable friend for that cheer, and pass my word of honour that alternative number 1 shall not be adopted. Seedtime and harvest may fail, but "By the Way" shall appear in due season. I will never, never desert Mr. Micawber.

Then there is the second alternative: I might satisfy Mr. McKenzie's curiosity by putting my full name and address at the end of "By the Way." But, as you all know, I am a very modest man, ill-suited to sustain the consequences of such publicity. The monstrari digito has no charms for me, and I have no time to spare for deputations. Why, if I gave my actual name and address, who knows but that people would be inducing me to stand for the Council, or the Licensing Committee, or (worse still) the Mayoralty. I might even descend to Parliament in the bitter end, and a nice fate that would be for a respectable note-writer. No, I fear the second alternative must be put aside in favour of the third. When the Bill passes no Note must exceed 150 words. A newspaper article is defined as meaning "any printed matter (other than letters, commercial reports, and commercial advertisements) appearing in any newspaper, and comprising more than 150 words." And every article or letter is to disclose the name and address of its writer. Hence, I take it, I shall be safe provided I do not exceed 150 words in the course of a single Note. One can get a good deal into 150 words, Mr. McKenzie! I must put a space limit upon myself in order to evade the Old World gags of 19th century Liberalism. But as I shall not fail to strengthen my style at the same time, I warn the manager that the honorarium for a 150 word Note must suffer no diminution. The three-hooped pot must have ten hoops.

We have not come across a single journal, Ministerial, Independent, or Opposition, that has a good word to say for the Hon. John McKenzie's Libel Bill; whilst some of his own friends deal him very hard knocks. The paper which circulates in the hon. gentleman's constituency is unable to compliment the hon. gentleman, and candidly confesses it expected better things of him. It stigmatises his Bill as an attempt "to throttle and stifle the freedom of the press," and says that by introducing it he has made himself "the legitimate target for severe comment and unlimited adverse criticism, for a more injudicious illiberal measure has never been introduced by the most ultra-Conservative in the Parliament of Now Zealand." The proposal to compel every writer of a letter or article to affix his name thereto is voted to be "simply monstrous," and it is asserted that to enforce it would "strike a death-blow to the independence of the press." . . . It strongly recommends the Minister to allow his precious Bill to follow the course of many less ignoble measures that have preceded it, and be classed as amongst the slaughtered innocents of the session, in this instance never to see the light of day again. "Such a magnanimous act on his part, when he finds the measure has been universally denounced, would do much to remove the ridicule which the introduction of such a Bill—the very opposite to what should emanate from a Liberal Government—has to some extent brought upon him." None of those terrible Conservative papers, which are the bane of the hon. gentleman, have been so severe in their condemnation of his gagging measure as his own journalistic supporters.